Since her first novel was published in 1969, Judy Blume has written nearly thirty more books, appealing to children (“Freckle Juice”), teens (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”), and adults (“Summer Sisters”) and varying widely in the topics she so smartly covered with them. However, none has made the trip to the big screen, until now. Blume’s 1981 novel “Tiger Eyes,” about a teenage girl named Davey who is transplanted into a New Mexico mountain town after the sudden loss of her father, is the first, and is now in theaters. But why such a long wait for a Judy Blume movie, and why this one, and why now? Lawrence Blume, Judy’s son––and the director of the film––had some answers to these and other questions that her legions of fans want to know.
“Many producers have pondered adapting ‘Tiger Eyes’ over the years,” the junior Blume told North Shore Movies. “There were some false starts, and some things that didn’t work out.”
If things had worked out, Blume may not have been able to realize his dual dreams of adapting the book himself (he read all of them either in process or as they were released) and working with his mother on producing that adaptation.
“Making a film out of the book is something I’ve wanted to do since I read it in high school,” Blume says of the project. “The timing is perfect, and the deal was hard to resist. Yes, we had to make-do with a tiny budget [from a European producer] and just 23 days in which to shoot, but we had full creative control.”
For some, working on such an important project with one’s mother would be a situation far from ideal, but for Blume, it was just the opposite.
“The collaboration was joyful,” he says. “She is an unbelievably fertile artist, and it was amazing to have her to collaborate with. She was with me for nearly every shot, next to me in the director’s chair. It was incredible to be able to turn to her after a shot and say ‘This is the direction I’m going with Willa [Holland, who plays Davey], to have her there, saying ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘you are going off the rails.’ Directing is lonely, so to have someone who knows the story as intimately or more so was great.”
The result of their collaboration is “a small, handmade film crafted with a lot of love and passion,” as he calls it, “and hopefully, people will respond to it,” he adds. “I think it’s about something.”
In a market populated by “vampires and dystopian futures,” the Blumes’ movie, according to the director, is “fighting uphill genre-wise.”
“I consider it a success that teens have responded to our emotionally honest film that represents real people and real emotions. Marketing-wise, finding that younger audience has been even harder, especially in that we don’t have a huge budget and play on 4,000 screens [movies like ‘Tiger Eyes’ are considered extremely lucky to get played on 400 screens].”
But “Tiger Eyes,” which is playing almost exclusively in indie-flavored arthouse cinemas, is not exclusively a teen film, according to Blume’s experience in playing the film at festivals over the past year.
“We tend to get local followings for those arthouses, which tend to be older––which was originally kind of disappointing for me––but soon discovered that people of all ages respond to this film. Older men approach me after screenings most often, saying that it moved them. I would wonder why, and then realize, ‘It’s because he has daughters, you idiot.’ But while it is a father-daughter story, we couldn’t market it to older men. Still, it’s amazing how some of the strongest emotional responses have been from men.”
With the responsibility of representing one of his mother’s most well-known, well-read, and well-liked books firmly on his shoulders, the pressure was on to make the movie right.
“I was terrified every single day that I would do something that would disappoint Judy’s fans.” he said. “They are a passionate bunch, and I always feared that they would respond with, ‘This sucks!” or “If it means so much, why did she let her son direct it?’ I tried to stay as faithful as much as I could.”
Movies and books are not of the same narrative structure, something of which Blume was fully aware while adapting “Tiger Eyes.”
“The book is a first-person narrative, and more about feelings instead of actions, and that’s where the real challenge was. I had to figure out how to turn inner monologues into actionable behavior. But you can’t go to work with fear––you must go with joy––something I kept in the back of my mind throughout the production. Also, having Judy there was a great comfort. If something wasn’t right, Judy would rewrite the scene on the spot.”
While not autobiographical, Blume appreciates the many similarities between his life and Davey’s in “Tiger Eyes.”
“It was a tumultuous time,” he remembers of his formative early teen years. “My mother had just divorced, and she had met a man we didn’t know that well. We left our native New Jersey––never having been west of the Mississippi––for the mountains of New Mexico. It was a tough time for Mom emotionally. It’s all in the movie, from Davey not getting what she needs at home and going out and trying to figure out her own way. I remember the hiking, the caves, the science museum displaying the nuclear bombs, adjusting to the weird place that is Los Alamos. It changed my whole life for the better.”
Another thing that Blume was exposed to during those New Mexico days was American Indian culture, which plays a significant part in “Tiger Eyes.” In the movie, the parts of Davey’s new friend Wolf Ortiz and his father, Willie, are played by real-life father and son Tatanka and American Indian activist/actor Russell Means.
“When we were in New Mexico casting the film, I said wishfully, ‘Wouldn’t it be something to get Russell Means to play the father?’ We were convinced that he’d never do it, in that everyone on the production was working for less than scale, and in that he was based out of South Dakota. At the same time, we had seen photos of his son, who was a stand-up comedian who had done some stunt work. He was very good-looking and charming, and we wondered if he would make a good Wolf. The word from the casting people in L.A. was that they were having a very hard time finding a Wolf, though we always knew it would be hard finding someone youngish, good-looking, and American Indian who could also act. Tatanka read for the the part, and we instantly thought he was fantastic. So we cast him, and [casting director] Jo [Edna Boldin] asked Russell, who was visiting. My mother and Russell hit it off on some level, and he said he hadn’t done anything professionally with his son but would like to, so he agreed to do it. We were very lucky. They were the real deal.”
The late Russell Means is best known for his involvement with the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and more specifically, AIM’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He later appeared in such film roles as Chingachgook in Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation of “The Last of the Mohicans,” and voiced Chief Powhatan in Disney’s 1995 mega-hit “Pocahontas” and its 1998 sequel. He shot his multiple scenes in “Tiger Eyes” in just one day.
“Having him around the set and being around him was a great joy and an education experience for me,” Blume says. “I was so sad when he passed away [from esophageal cancer] last year. I was very thankful to have had him involved in our film.”
During Blume’s time working with the Meanses, Russell shared an original autobiographical screenplay about getting off “the rez” (reservation).
“Tatanka and I are talking about producing it. He is now a friend, and we have traveled together quite a bit promoting ‘Tiger Eyes.’ That whole time, he wouldn’t actually watch the film, as it was too emotional for him. However, recently we brought the film to Hill City, South Dakota, and his family and a lot of kids from the Pine Ridge Reservation came out to see it. That’s the first time he saw the film. I want to make another film with him. Actually, I want him to become the first American Indian action hero!”
As for upcoming Judy Blume adaptations, there may be one more in Lawrence’s future.
“There are only two of her thirty books that I think I’m the right one to direct––this and ‘Summer Sisters.’ I know best how to tell those stories because I have personal experience tied to those books. I have been taking a crack at the screenplay for ten years. If I do another, that’ll be the one. At one time, Disney wanted to do ‘Deenie,’ and I did what I could to protect my mother and keep an eye on her rights and the integrity of her work the best I could. I didn’t want to control things or be the filmmaker, but I’m always happy to help her. I’d do anything for her.”•••
Robert Newton is the Editor of North Shore Movies, and runs The Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, at which “Tiger Eyes” is playing July 8-20 (with Judy Blume making a rare live appearance on July 8).